Murder in Hitler's Bunker: Who Really Poisoned the Goebbels Children?

By Georg Bönisch

To this day, the murder by poisoning of the six children of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels remains a mystery. Newly discovered records show that a doctor confessed in the 1950s to having been an accomplice, but that the judges in the case let him go unpunished.

These are the last days of their lives, but the children don't know it. There is 12-year-old Helga, who has the eyes and dark hair of her father, Joseph Goebbels. There is Hilde, 11, who is more of a brunette; anyone looking at her quickly realizes that she is about to blossom into a true beauty. And then there are eight-year-old Holde, six-year-old Hedda and the youngest of the girls, four-year-old Heide.

H for Hitler. The name of each child evokes the name of the Führer, for whom Goebbels works as propaganda chief. The family's only son is named Helmut, a slightly languorous nine-year-old.

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Berlin, the end of April 1945, the Reich Chancellery. Hitler's bunker, deep underground beneath the Chancellery, is a place of gray concrete, narrow passageways, iron doors and cold light. It isn't a welcoming place, particularly not for children who, only a few weeks earlier, were living a seemingly carefree and innocent life, playing with cats and dogs on a farm far away from Berlin.

Russian soldiers are only a few hundred meters away, and everyone in the bunker is urging the parents to finally take the children to a safe place. Hanna Reitsch, a celebrated German aviator, says: "My God, Mrs. Goebbels, the children cannot stay here, even if I have to fly in 20 times to get them out."

But the Goebbels remain unyielding.

"It is better for my children to die than to live in disgrace and humiliation," says their mother, Magda. Their father fears that Stalin could take the children to Moscow, where they would be brainwashed into becoming communists. "No, it's better that we take them along."

Unpunished Crime

On April 30, at about 3:30 p.m., Hitler shoots himself in the head, and his companion Eva Braun dies with him. The double suicide is a signal for the others. By the next day, the six Goebbels children are also dead. After receiving morphine injections to render them unconscious, they are poisoned with cyanide, a substance that causes rapid death by suffocation.

Six dead children, and yet the act was never punished. Astonishingly, no historian has ever truly delved into this tragic crime, which was part of the final act of the Third Reich. To this day, the episode remains the subject of speculation and misinterpretation.

However there was a remarkable judicial sequel in the late 1950s, involving a case that was heard by a regional appeals court in the western German city of Hamm. The case files are stored at the national archive in nearby Münster. They have remained unnoticed until now, even though they highlight the "leniency and questionable argumentation with which the courts addressed Nazi crimes at the time," says chief prosecutor Maik Wogersien, who recently stumbled upon the documents, more or less by accident. Wogersien is conducting research on precisely this subject at the Legal Academy of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia.

According to the documents, the judges who prosecuted the Goebbels case were former members of the Nazi Party, as was so often the case in trials dealing with Nazi crimes in the newly formed Federal Republic of Germany. For example, the judges managed to disregard a completed indictment for infanticide, using incorrect and possibly even illegal arguments. The defendant was acquitted.

The newly discovered records now make it possible, for the first time, to reconstruct what actually happened.

Fateful Moment

The man who is the focus of all the documents was Helmut Kunz, who was born in the southwestern town of Ettlingen in 1910. After studying law, he went on to obtain a doctorate in dental medicine, writing a doctoral thesis titled "Studies of Dental Caries in Schoolchildren as Related to Their Feeding in Infancy." In 1936 he opened a dental practice in Lucka, south of the eastern city of Leipzig. Kunz was also a member of the Sturm 10/48 unit of the SS.

When Hitler began the war, Kunz served as a medical officer in the SS's notorious Totenkopf (Death's Head) division. He was seriously wounded in 1941, and after his recovery he was transferred to the medical unit of the Waffen-SS, the SS's combat arm, in Berlin. In April 1945, at the rank of Sturmbannführer, Kunz was transferred again, this time to the Reich Chancellery. For Kunz, who a confidant of Hitler had described as having an "erect soldierly bearing," it was to become a fateful moment.

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